TAMPA — Michelle Baker and her husband Greg are the kind of people you’re magnetically drawn to because you feel cool-by-association in their presence. He’s the low-key, inked-up, James Beard-nominated chef behind two of Tampa’s smartest restaurants. She’s over 6 feet tall, tells cheeky stories, and dyes her hair the color of blanched almonds.
Chatting on their porch under the watchful blue eyes of their cat Handsome Dick Manitoba (named after the lead singer of the punk band the Dictators), the culinary trailblazers seemed a bit hesitant at first to take credit for Tampa’s burgeoning restaurant scene. After some prodding and cajoling, they finally relented.
“I’m just going to be cocky and finally embrace it,” Greg Baker said. “We changed the restaurant game in Tampa.”
He’s not just strumming his own ukulele. The Bakers’ pioneering gumption helped transform their once-blighted neighborhood into a nascent foodie destination. They laid a foundation for the new gastro scene.
When they opened their first restaurant, the Refinery, in 2010 there was nothing like it in Tampa. The menu changes multiple times a week based on the local harvest. For a city that is the corporate home of chains such as Outback Steakhouse, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse, and Checkers Drive-In, the Refinery’s farm-to-fork mindset was revolutionary.
With this formula, Greg Baker not only lit a fire under his Yard Bird en Cocotte, but he also lit an inspirational fire under many of the city’s chefs.
I need to stop here and reiterate that this James Beard-nominated chef endearingly refers to the chicken on his menu as yard bird.
Thanks to the Bakers and their ilk, the neighborhood of Seminole Heights, a part of Tampa once known for its ruffians, strumpets, and non-stop transgressions, has become the epicenter of a movement that’s spread across the city. On a characterless boulevard full of used car dealerships and empty sidewalks there are now restaurants where people wait for tables on Friday and Saturday nights — sometimes up to three and four hours.
It’s changed so much that Michelle Baker wants to celebrate her neighborhood on a T-shirt.
“It would say ‘Seminole Heights’ on the front,” she said. “And the back would read: ‘It’s not just hookers and drug dealers.’”
Before we get ahead of ourselves, the Seminole Heights neighborhood is not exactly the new Brooklyn. You’ll hear the comparison from everyone, but please disregard. Also, good food is not a foreign concept in Tampa. It is the somewhat disputed birthplace of the Cuban sandwich and the home of the legendary and opulent Bern’s Steak House and its spin-off Haven. Bern’s is so legendary that its owners recently partnered with a hotel group to open Epicurean Hotel, an innovative food-themed hotel in the Hyde Park neighborhood.
London-born mixologist Ro Patel recalls his first stroll through the city shortly after moving to Tampa eight years ago.
“I remember going downtown at 8 or 9 at night to check it out, and it was tumble weeds,” Patel said. “There was nothing going on. All the bars and businesses were closed and I thought, ‘Oh my God, what have I done? Why did I move here?’”
Three years later, Patel, a well-regarded cocktail master, changed the city’s bar culture by opening a speakeasy called Ciro’s. He said residents were slow to warm up to his menu of classic cocktails, but now reservations (and a password) are necessary to gain entry. Downtown Tampa, which is a short drive from Seminole Heights, is experiencing a renaissance of its own thanks in part to the newly completed Riverwalk
“The transformation of the restaurant scene here is happening at breakneck speed,” he said. “It’s amazing. Seminole Heights has been perfect because the rent there was conducive to young chefs opening up restaurants.”
Two of those young restaurateurs, Ty Rodriguez and Ferrell Alvarez, saw just how starved (bad pun intended) Tampa residents were for new dining options when they opened their restaurant Rooster & the Till at the end of 2013. They started with 35 seats, grew to 42 seats in March 2014, and this July doubled their space. The walls are paneled in horizontal slabs of recovered wood and finished off with a picture of a giant rooster from the Ybor neighborhood.
On a recent Saturday night the place was packed. Alvarez darted around the open kitchen while I stuffed myself with a small plate of gnocchi, short ribs, smoked ricotta, and spicy pickled peperonata. It may sound like a lot for one dish, but Alverez is a master of playing with flavors without excessive portions. Look no further than the artistry of his matcha custard, miso butterscotch, black sesame nori “glass,” with valrhona chocolate five spice sorbet. It resembles modern art on a small plate.
Tampanians — or Tampans, take your pick — who previously steered clear of Seminole Heights, are now starting to approach the neighborhood, but cautiously.
“There’s tons of funny stories about that,” says Rodriguez. “I hear people say ‘I hope my car is safe out there.’ There was a group that got back to their car, and they saw that their hubcaps weren’t stolen and said ‘I get to keep my hubcaps and this place is awesome, I’m definitely coming back.’ It’s pretty hilarious.”
Many of these young chefs moved away from Tampa, but returned to be near their families. Noel Cruz, co-owner of the insanely popular Ichicoro Ramen grew up in Tampa and came back after opening two restaurants in New York. He and chef Masaru Takaku opened Ichicoro Ramen in a former autobody shop. The two put an innovative Asian spin on favorites such as the Cuban sandwich and fried chicken.
“There’s a lot going on here,” said Takaku, looking a bit frazzled after the Saturday lunch crush. “We saw an opportunity, and the timing was perfect.”
So perfect that patrons wait up to four hours for tables. I didn’t have that kind of time or patience, so I came for a very late lunch and dug into the CuBaoNo bun. I had spent most of the day eating, but it didn’t stop me from trying some of the favorites at Ichicoro, or the Independent Bar and Cafe, the Mermaid Tavern, Fodder & Shine (also owned by the Bakers), and Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe, which technically isn’t in Seminole Heights, but close enough for me to visit for the funky monkey waffle. I confess that I stepped into Tampa’s buzzy gastro scene with a skeptical attitude, low expectations, and a raised eyebrow. I left with a much snugger waistband on my jeans.
“We’re not a safe restaurant scene,” said Alvarez of Rooster & the Till. “But that’s why people are coming to this neighborhood. The restaurants aren’t cookie cutter. People have this misconception that Tampa is mundane. I’d like to think that’s quickly changing.”